Curiosity to take first steps today

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover will take its first test drive today, in a 30-minute jaunt that will end where it started.

It will drive about 10 feet, turn its wheels, then return to its landing site, ending up at a 90-degree angle from its original position inside Gale Crater.

“We want to park in a place we’ve exactly examined. We just want to be extra safe,” says mission manager Michael Watkins.

Ultimately, the team plans to send the rover to a three-mile-high mound of layered rock rising from the center of the crater’s floor, known as Mount Sharp.

It’s believed to be the remnant of sediment that once completely filled the 96-mile-wide basin, and the team hopes to find organic materials and other minerals needed to support and possibly preserve microbial life.

Unfortunately, though, the rover appears to have lost one of its two wind sensors. Engineers suspect small pebbles kicked up by the rover’s landing rockets during touchdown may have hit its deck and severed delicate wires on one of the sensor’s exposed circuit boards.

“These are pretty fragile devices,” says deputy project scientist Ashwin Vasavada, adding that the damage is believed to be permanent.

The loss will make it harder to determine wind speed and direction inside Gale Crater.

Scientists suspect that winds were responsible for the creation of Mount Sharp, by carrying and depositing sediment. Winds also likely play a role in forming the sand dunes that ring Mount Sharp today.

“We are trying to figure out how much sediment is going in today, how much is able to be carried out and then projecting that backward in time, using our computer simulations, to figure out basically how the mound came to be and what processes have shaped it and formed it and then eroded it over time,” says Vasavada.